From the Archives: Notre Dame in Jerusalem
Thomas Dobbs | Monday, October 30, 2023
Amid the ongoing violence and turmoil of 2023 in Israel, the University of Notre Dame’s enduring connection to Jerusalem takes on newfound significance. Dating back to the early 1960s, Notre Dame embarked on a visionary endeavor by investing millions of dollars in the creation of the Ecumenical Institute near Jerusalem. This article delves into the rich history of the university’s ties to Jerusalem, exploring moments of interruption and revival in its study abroad program at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute. From the challenging decisions made during periods of geopolitical uncertainty to the recent reopening of the program, the narrative weaves together the university’s enduring commitment to interfaith learning and cultural exchange with the complex backdrop of the Middle East’s contemporary instability. It’s a story of Notre Dame’s study abroad program in Israel—a journey marked by aspiration and adversity, with echoes that strongly resonate in the tumultuous present of 2023.
Beginning of Tantur in 1960’s
In the early 1960s, as the world grappled with rising costs, budget cuts, and dwindling support for education, Notre Dame embarked on a remarkable endeavor that would forever link its name to Jerusalem. The University invested millions of dollars in the creation of the Ecumenical Institute, a visionary project situated near Jerusalem. Few on Notre Dame’s campus at the time realized that they had just become the proud stewards of this Institute.
As a compelling article from Scholastic Magazine in 1964 notes, the question hung in the air: “Amid a time of rising costs, budget cuts, and diminishing support for education, what on earth is the University doing, building a multimillion-dollar Institute in Jerusalem over which it has no academic control?” The answer, as so often happened at Notre Dame, centered around a charismatic figure—Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, whose influence would leave an indelible mark on this venture.
The Ecumenical Institute was not a mere whim but the brainchild of Pope Paul VI himself. In 1964, the Pope envisioned an ecumenical institute in Jerusalem as a testament to his meeting with the Byzantine Patriarch, Athenogoras, and to continue the ecumenical spirit ignited by Vatican II.
The physical embodiment of this vision was no less impressive. Designed by Frank Montana from Notre Dame’s Department of Architecture, the Institute’s building earned accolades as the most beautiful Christian structure constructed in Jerusalem since World War I.
The Institute welcomed scholars from various corners of the globe. A handful of resident scholars made Tantur their home for extended periods, while senior scholars graced its halls for shorter stays. Fr. Charles Sheedy, a Notre Dame presence, took on the role of rector.
In its early years, the Institute was primarily a Christian endeavor, yet there was a whisper of hope. Fr. Hesburgh believed that, over time, a common understanding would emerge among the residents, paving the way for interaction with other great world religions, particularly the two indigenous to the area: Judaism and Islam.
The 1970s and 80s saw Tantur, as the Institute came to be known, evolve into a haven for theologians and scholars from diverse backgrounds. Each evening, the picturesque chapel overlooking Jerusalem and Bethlehem echoed with the voices of scholars, including Kenneth Seitz, a Notre Dame graduate student who found inspiration in the interdenominational vesper prayers led by five Benedictine monks from Montserrat, Spain.
Seitz, whose story unfolded in the academic year of 1977-78, was not alone. Tantur’s allure transcended borders, attracting scholars from 38 countries and representing 21 religious denominations. It became a crucible of learning, culture, and faith.
1988: A Tumultuous Hiatus in Jerusalem
As the world turned the pages of time towards the late 1980s, the Notre Dame study abroad program in Jerusalem found itself navigating the treacherous waters of geopolitical turmoil.
In the winter of 1988, Isabel Charles, Notre Dame’s associate provost and director of the foreign study program, delivered disheartening news. The Jerusalem foreign study program slated for that spring stood canceled, a decision made in response to the escalating violence and tensions that gripped the region. The delicate situation in the Middle East, where Notre Dame’s Ecumenical Institute at Tantur stood on the precipice between Israeli and Palestinian factions in the West Bank, prompted a pragmatic choice—an erring on the side of caution.
As Charles succinctly put it, “I felt the situation was just too tense to send a group of young people (to Jerusalem).” The foreign study program had always harbored concerns about terrorism since its inception in 1985, yet previous incidents had been isolated. The holiday season in the weeks leading to the fateful Christmas of 1987 had set off alarm bells, marking a turning point that led to the unprecedented cancellation.
For the students who had eagerly anticipated this journey, like sophomore Pete Morgan (‘90), the abrupt cancellation carried a mixture of disappointment and relief. “It’s too bad it had to happen now,” mused Morgan, echoing the sentiments of his peers. For many parents, the news brought a palpable sense of relief, having grappled with the inherent anxiety of sending their loved ones into the heart of a volatile region.
While this cancellation marked a sobering moment in the program’s history, hope persisted on the horizon. Isabel Charles remained optimistic about the future, expressing her expectation that the foreign study program would reopen in the fall of 1988.
Amid this setback, the summer program at Tantur continued to offer a glimmer of continuity. Fr. Patrick Gaffney, a program coordinator, assured that students participating in the Jerusalem Summer Study Program were not expected to be in any great danger. Despite the suspension of the semester program, the summer program forged ahead, beckoning students to an enlightening journey from June 11 to August 7.
This summer program, the brainchild of a consortium comprising four Catholic universities—Notre Dame, Fordham, Georgetown, and Villanova—offered a compelling opportunity. It invited students to immerse themselves in the rich cultural tapestry of the region, studying and residing at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute, nestled just outside the historic city of Jerusalem.
The Institute, overseen by the University of Notre Dame and originating in the mid-1960s under the auspices of Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, had become a symbol of interfaith learning and shared experiences. Although the Jerusalem Summer Study Program had gone unnoticed by Notre Dame students the previous year, there was renewed hope of attracting a greater number of participants.
In 2000, Notre Dame’s Jerusalem study abroad program faced cancellation due to the Second Intifada. “We keep returning to the dilemma: if we would have to sequester the students in Tantur, our program of wide-ranging access to both cultures and all three religions would be severely curtailed,” said Fr. David Burrell, the program’s director. The program typically accommodated around 15 Notre Dame students, offering courses at local institutions like Hebrew University, Bethlehem University, and the Ratisbonne Institute.
Students planning to join the Jerusalem program were given two alternatives: participating in a Mediterranean program in Athens that spring or applying for the Jerusalem program in spring 2002. Megan Sweeney (’01), a senior in the College of Science who had participated in the Jerusalem program the previous spring, emphasized the high tension in the region, stating, “It’s just too unpredictable at this time.” Professor Susan Sheridan, conducting research in Jerusalem, supported the program’s cancellation, fearing that the prevailing turmoil would overshadow its educational benefits.
Reopening and Contemporary Instability
In a surprising turn of events, after a nine-year hiatus, the University of Notre Dame decided to revive its study abroad program at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem. This decision marked a significant moment in the program’s history, offering eight to ten students the chance to immerse themselves once again in the vibrant and complex city of Jerusalem. The Office of International Studies (OIS) unveiled the Jerusalem Summer Program for the summer of 2009, rekindling hopes for an academic and cultural exchange unlike any other.
Liz Murdock LaFortune, Assistant Director of OIS and Program Coordinator for the Jerusalem Summer Program, expressed her enthusiasm for the program’s revival. “I’m really grateful that we have the opportunity to send students there because there’s just really nothing quite like it,” she remarked. She emphasized the unparalleled value of engaging with the people and culture of Jerusalem, an experience that transcended the boundaries of a typical campus education.
Despite the hiatus, students had continued to express keen interest in the Jerusalem Program. Over the years, the State Department’s travel warning remained in effect. Still, LaFortune believed that the overall security situation had improved in the area. The university would redesign the summer program with a heightened focus on structured activities to minimize risk and ensure the safety of participants.
This resurrected program would continue to operate from the Tantur Ecumenical Institute, located on the road between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The institute, originally acquired by the Vatican after the Second Vatican Council, had remained on lease to the University of Notre Dame.
The decision to reopen the program affirmed the conviction that living and studying in Jerusalem offered Notre Dame students an unparalleled opportunity. LaFortune summed it up succinctly, stating, “Simply stated, there is no other location that offers the options and resources that are available to University of Notre Dame students in Jerusalem.”